The Biennale de Arte 2017: Is the 2017 Biennale better than the 2015 edition? Probably yes…

A New Lease of Life for Venice Biennale

This is, of course, a highly subjective opinion, but there is more of interest, more exhibitions with clarity and purpose, and a better sense of engagement with visitors. There is also less in the way of obscure conceptual posturing. It is still, however, a huge event that seems to get bigger with each edition, and it is therefore inevitable that the quality and interest of the work is very variable, but the event can be said to have a broader appeal than in some past years.
In the first paragraph of her Curator’s Statement Christine Macel writes:

‘Today, in a world full of conflicts and shocks, art bears witness to the most precious part of what makes us human. Art is the ultimate ground for reflection, individual expression, freedom, and for fundamental questions. Art is the favourite realm for dreams and utopias, a catalyst for human connections that roots us both to nature and the cosmos, that elevates us to a spiritual dimension.’ and, ‘The role, the voice and the responsibility of the artist are more crucial than ever before within the framework of contemporary debates. It is in and through these individual initiatives that the world of tomorrow takes shape, which though surely uncertain, is often best intuited by artists than others.’

Her statement as a whole is refreshingly direct and relatively brief, avoiding the mind-numbing intellectual rambling of some previous curators’ statements. Instead of imposing a single overarching theme, she has set up nine ‘trans-pavilions’ that spread throughout the Central Pavilion in the Garden and the spaces of the Arsenale. The broad and inclusive thinking behind the theme of each pavilion also serves to inform exhibitions held elsewhere. The scope of themes in these nine trans-pavilions is very wide, and at times, if a visitor pauses to read the text for each of them, might threaten to overpower the works that are shown within them. The texts serve as guidance, and perhaps as food for thought after seeing the works, but in most cases the works are allowed to speak for themselves without didactic insistence from the catalogue material. Does the resulting Biennale meet the aims stated by Christine Macel? Probably, but not consistently… This is inevitable given the very wide range of presentations, from the major national pavilions in the Giardini and Arsenale, to smaller national presentations throughout the city, not to mention the very large number of individual artists from a wide range of countries and backgrounds whose work is being shown in the Biennale itself, and in the unofficial exhibitions that are being staged to coincide with the main event. It is encouraging that there is a very wide range of artists featured in the Biennale as a whole, from newly-established young artists and on through all generations including artists who have died in recent years.

Does the nature and content of the art shown in the Biennale offer hope for today and the future? That cannot be certain, but there are some works that offer a more optimistic view than others. To expect art on its own to change the world is too much to ask. What is certain, as the developments in political events during 2016–2017 show, is that national societies and international relationships are more fractured than ever. The role of the visual arts in exposing and criticising these fractures is increasingly important. There is some, but not much, evidence of artists attempting to highlight and bridge the gaps: the dialogue is not yet as established or focussed as it perhaps should be. There are many reasons for this, but the gap between the conflicting pressures on artists’ to gain commercial acceptability and thereby to make a living, and their wish to maintain their altruistic idealism is one of them, and is widening. As Christine Macel writes in her Statement,

‘The decision to become an artist, in and of itself, requires taking a stance in society, one that is today broadly popular and widely acknowledged, but is perceived nevertheless as an act of calling into question work — and its by-product, money — as the absolute value in the modern world.’

Giardini

The Giardini contains many of the National Pavilions, each of which offers a distinct architectural style, spread around a landscaped park beside the Lagoon. As is to be expected the variety of work shown is very wide, but it does allow the visitor to spend a day of interest and stimulation. This year there were three pavilions of particular interest, those of Great Britain, Germany and the USA. Although the artists selected for these pavilions produce work that distinctly different, all were thought provoking, offering contrast and comparisons. Interestingly, the artists included in all three Pavilions are represented by the same gallery, Hauser and Wirth.

The Great Britain Pavilion contains a sculptural installation by Phyllida Barlow, an artist who, after a long career of exhibiting and teaching with scant recognition except in specialised areas of the art world, has in recent years become much more widely celebrated for her powerful and intriguing work. She has filled the classically proportioned pavilion to overflowing with works that seem particularly appropriate as the turmoil caused by the EU Referendum and its political consequences continues to shake the UK to its foundations, causing social and political division. The resulting forms succeed in being simultaneously playful and disturbing, dwarfing the visitor with their monumental scale and leaving little space for visitors to get around the galleries. This major work is entitled, ‘Folly’, and is made from mostly insubstantial materials, similar to those used for stage sets. The seeming solidity of the large scale columns and other architectural forms, some brightly painted, others more muted, betokens not so much the sense of the reliable permanence of British institutions but their fragility and illusion, the end of Empire, the divisiveness of the present and uncertainty about the future. ‘Folly’ can be seen as a warning about hubris, and the vacuity of political promises.

The German Pavilion was awarded the Golden Lion for the Best National Pavilion by the 2017 Biennale Jury, and contains the powerful environmental/performance work entitled ‘Faust’ by Anne Imhof. Visiting the Pavilion on a day in which the performers had time off made it possible to assess the installation on its own merits. It comprises mainly a glass floor raised off the existing floor to create a performance space beneath with a few remnants of the rituals that take place there. Parts of the Pavilion are divided from the main space by glass walls that both contain and reflect. There are high glass platforms above the space and outside there is a caged enclosure in which two Doberman dogs patrol, together with other glass walls that allow a partial view of the interior and that also reflect the surrounding landscape. All these elements combine to create a disturbing and disorienting space, strangely quiet without the intervention of the performance. That, reportedly, adds other sensations to the cold and clinical precision of the work, being described variously as disturbing, dystopian, brutal and, as evidenced by the need for the performers to be given time off, exhausting.

The USA Pavilion, with an installation of work by Mark Bradford entitled, ‘Tomorrow is Another Day’, presents a bleak vision of a country distinctly at odds with the vaunted ambitions of its new President. The exterior of the Pavilion is treated so that it appears to have been abandoned. Panels to either side of the closed up formal entrance contain a poem by the artist alluding to the trans-Atlantic slave traffic. Inside, the first gallery space is almost filled by a large sagging form, suggesting social collapse or the failure of grand intentions. In the central rotunda there is a form like a living growth, circling the domed ceiling and dripping down the walls that have been distressed with broken plaster and cracked door panels. Elsewhere there are monumental paintings, a sculpture, ‘Medusa’, and in the final gallery a projected video loop that shows a young black boy walking down a street, filmed with a telephoto lens that compresses the perspective so that the boy almost appears to float, walking forever and never arriving. This is the United States of Despair, in which this committed artist strives through his neighbourhood programmes for the improvement of society.

Curious connections can be made between the works in the Canada, Denmark and Venezuela pavilions. Geoffrey Farmer has almost destroyed the Canada Pavilion and inserted a seemingly random but carefully curated collection of artefacts, as well as a fountain that surrounds the artefacts with water. The whole work is entitled, ‘A Way of out of the Mirror’, and is intended as a contemplation on the nature of personal memories and family histories. The Denmark Pavilion has had the window panels removed and has plants flowing into the space from outside, nature reclaiming the art space, with a tapestry by Kirstine Roepstorff, titled ‘Influenza’, as the sole exhibit. The Pavilion of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is due to be restored to its original design by Carlo Scarpa, and features text panels explaining this project together with works by Juan Calzadilla inserted into the incomplete building. Three very different countries, each without a complete building in which to show the selected work. What is this symbolic of? The end of art? The need to reimagine the idea of the gallery?

Australia has one of the most architecturally assured pavilions, and the work of Tracey Moffatt, the selected artist, complements the building very well. Her beautifully crafted photography and video works and their intricately constructed imaginative scenarios present a poetic vision of the arid open spaces of her country in which the human being is almost overwhelmed by the environment. The video work, ‘Vigil’, shown on an exterior screen integrated into the building’s structure, extends this vision into the environment of the Giardini. The timelessness of her work is particularly appropriate at the present time of uncertainty and transition. In the Japan pavilion the work by Takahiro Iwasaki, ‘Turned Upside Down It’s a Forest’, is a masterly demonstration of the excellence of traditional Japanese craftsmanship with a series of intricate works in wood that combine aspects of historical and industrial architecture in the form of scale models. The effect is both mesmerising and unsettling. The Republic of Korea offers contrasting work by two artists that relates both to traditional Korea and to the global Korea that is influenced in particular by the USA. The exuberant neon installation on the exterior by Cody Choi contrasts with his conceptual installations inside the pavilion, one of which is a crude recreation in ‘Pepto-Bismol’ pink of Rodin’s The Thinker’. The work of Lee Wan presents a distinct contrast in his installation in the style of an ethnographic museum of the lifetime accumulation by Mr K, an anonymous journalist, of artefacts and photographs, presented in such as way as to create a history of Korea through times of great change. The architectural solidity of the Russia Pavilions harks back to the past of 1914, still palpable despite its 2010 restoration. Of the three featured artists, shown with the overall title, Theatrum Orbis 2017’, that of Grisha Brushkin is outstanding, with a work titled, ‘Scene Change’, a large installation of small figures and structures in white, set against a black background, and depicting, in the words of the exhibition guide, ‘The pressing, troubling events and developments of our rising aggression, terror, the irrational behaviour of “the masses” – and the strategies of control and regulation that permeate modern-day human reality.’ Taken together as examples of the best work in the Biennale these four pavilions present clear responses to the focus of Christine Macel’s statement, ‘Viva Arte Viva’.

The Venice Pavilion is predicated on celebrating the virtues of high quality Venetian crafts, and the continuation of centuries old skill. Quite how this glossy and gilded collection, under the title, ‘Luxus’, fits in with the aims of the Curator is unclear. The Central Pavilion in the Giardini, as a whole, really needs an entire day on its own. It is here that the Curator’s construct of the nine pavilions is initiated, further extended through the spaces in the Arsenale. In her words: ‘The exhibition is intended as an experience, an extrovert movement from the self to the other, towards a common space beyond the defined dimensions, and onwards to the idea of a potential neo-humanism.’

This large Pavilion contains an interesting collection of 39 artists and themes, spread out through 43 spaces, enabling the visitor to wander at random and make their own connections. I liked very much the work of the Syrian artist, Marwan (1934-2016), in particular his large-scale portraits. His ability to capture both the appearance of the people he depicted and their underlying characteristics was served well by his masterful technique, offering an alternative series of images of a Syria very different from those shown in the contemporary media. A number of artists who were at one time celebrated and whose work is rarely seen these days is included in this very eclectic selection. Among these is the British artist John Latham (1921-2006), whose idiosyncratic work was very much a feature of the London art scene in the 1960s and 70s. Works from that time, mostly involving books as part of his assemblages, included the celebrated (and infamous) ‘Skoob’ towers of burning books. The works shown are from 1963-92 giving the chance for a reassessment of this unique artist.

The Olafur Eliasson project, ‘Green Light – an artistic workshop’, is very different to the large scale environmental installations for which the Danish artist is most celebrated. In recent years his work has included a strong social aspect, and this is very apparent in this Biennale project. Eliasson has designed a modular structure for a domestic lamp, and the workshop produces the elements for such lamps and their assembly into a finished project that can be purchased by visitors, singly for use as lamps, or in multiples to create sculptural installations. The team engaged in the workshop includes asylum seekers, migrants, refugees, students – and also visitors to the exhibition if they wish – giving the project a strong social and collaborative focus. There is an interesting link between this work and the intention and operation of the pavilion of Tunisia which comprises booths set up in the Arsenale and in other places in Venice. The concept and execution of ‘The Absence of Paths’, is a performative project that requires the interaction of individual visitors, offering them the opportunity to consider and engage with the production of their own ‘Universal Travel Document’, to think further about the continuing vexatious problem of refugees and forced migration, and the nature of international society. This project offered a rare example of how the intention of the Biennale can be met with slender resources and the conveyance of a simple and powerful message.

The Arsenale

As always, the exhibitions in this sprawling range of buildings, with new areas added this for this edition of the Biennale, proved to be variously successful. The arrangement of spaces was more open and less claustrophobic than in 2015, enabling sightlines that could take in the work of several artists at one time, encouraging wider exploration.

With at least 93 artists shown, not including those in national exhibition such as those of Italy and China, it is clearly difficult to offer an authoritative interpretation of all the artists’ work. Each visitor will find artists whose work attracts and resonates with them. Among those whose work I enjoyed was Liliana Porter (Argentina) who presented a new version of her justly celebrated installation, ‘The Man with an Axe and Other Brief Situations’ in which she assembles miniature figures and objects of a wide range of sizes to create a wholly believable, and yet disturbing, amusing, and utterly compelling, set of scenarios that are at once both absurdly imaginative and wholly believable. It was good to see the recent work of David Medalla (UK), another artist who made his name in the 1960s and who has continued to expand the range of his work. ‘A Stitch in Time’ was begun in 1968 and has gone through many iterations since then. It was intriguing to watch a number of visitors engaging fully with this work, sewing objects into the huge suspended loop of fabric, truly a collage of memories of the many.

Michel Blazy (Monaco) creates ‘Collection of Shoes’, a powerful and visually arresting installation of sports shoes, displayed as if in an upmarket store, and yet filled with earth and growing plants, Francis Upritchard (New Zealand) presents a group of small figurative sculptures imbued with a mysterious blend of ethnographic and cultural references, resulting in an intriguing collection that demanded close attention. The works by Rina Banerjee (India) all have long and complex titles that offer indications of their deeper meaning. They are visually attractive, with curious combinations of objects and materials, suspended against a neutral background, requiring close inspection and consideration, but offering far more depth than is at first apparent. The work of Roberto Cuogli (Italy), included in a group of artists from Italy, succeeded in being compelling in its laboratory-like installation of machinery and enclosures, and at the same time repellent, as if from a horror film. With the title, ‘The Imitation of Christ’, derived from the 15th century devotional book by Thomas à Kempis, the whole installation produces human figures in an organic material that undergoes a process of decomposition throughout the period of the Biennale. It is a grim exposition and meditation on the nature of mortality. It also offers a curious contrast/comparison with the by now somewhat notorious exhibition of new work by Damien Hirst, that is referred to elsewhere in this report.

Around the city

Many countries are represented by exhibitions within historic buildings across the city. It is possible to plan a route to take in several of these, but one of the joys of Venice has always been wandering through the maze of narrow streets between the canals and coming across places that would otherwise have escaped notice. Unexpected exhibitions are encountered in this way and can yield surprises. In the 2017 edition of the Biennale there are some exhibitions that stand out in my experience.

The Cuba pavilion, contained work by a loose collection of artists from various generations, working in a wide variety of forms. The work of Abel Barroso who is represented by a collection of beautifully made wooden objects incorporating inked woodcut surfaces, under the generic title ‘Internet Room and Virtual Reality, Cuban style’. Barroso has created a range of computers, laptops and smartphones using wood, with the screens and back surfaces of the screen carved and inked with half-humorous/half satirical images and texts, alluding to the desire of young Cubans to participate fully in Internet society while often lacking the connections to do so, hence the gatherings of such people close to the big international hotels so that they can connect through their wi-fi networks. I also enjoyed the work of Ivan Capote, an object in the form of a clock with the numbers replaced by the text, ‘Don’t Look Back’ running in reverse around the dial. There is an implied imperative to keep moving forward, very relevant as a guiding principle in Cuba as it emerges from years of isolation. I appreciated the video/performance work by Aimeé Garcia, ‘Rewind’, in which two screens depict the knitting and subsequent unpicking of a large piece of red knitting, accompanied by a live performance of the same actions. The references are to the seeming impossibility of progress and the constant rewriting of history that accompanies societal development.

The Azerbaijan pavilion, as in 2015, demonstrated the success with which Azebaijani artists are supported by the Heyday Aliyev Foundation, with an exhibition of highly contrasting works under the title, ‘Under One Sun: The Art of Living Together’. A group of technically highly competent creative artists, working under the name, Hypnotica — Visual Performance Group, have created three complex installations that incorporate video mapping, digital projection and electronic music. One of these forms the entrance to the whole exhibition, with five video screens to each side with faces showing the diversity of peoples in Azerbaijan, above columns of scrolling text that spread down to and across the floor, flowing and mutating, projected on to visitors who become, however briefly, part of the work, and also on to a sculpted human figure on the rear wall. By complete contrast are the sculptural installations of Elvin Nabizade that focus on self-identification and national culture. The first,’Under One Sun’, is in the form of an arc constructed from suspended instruments — the Saz — that is central to the music of both Azerbaijan and the artist’s native Georgia. The arc symbolises the path of the sun from sunrise to sunset, and is accompanied by the sounds of the San. It is both simple and complex, and elegant and quietly powerful evocation of the country and its people. The other installation, ‘Sphere’, has a wide diversity of the instruments that are used by the peoples of Azerbaijan, suspended to form the sphere of the title, a symbolic representation of social unity and harmony.

In both of these exhibitions the works of art are installed with full regard to the historic importance of the buildings in which they placed, and a balance is achieved in which each complements the other. This is not always the case, as evidenced by the exhibition of a mixed group of artists in an exhibition of artists curated by The Pushkin State Museum of FIne Arts, Man as Bird: Images of Journeys’, and staged in the beautifully conserved 15th century Palazzo Soranzo van Axel. Sadly this exhibition demonstrates how an historic building can overpower the art, and how not all attempts to place art within such demanding surroundings can succeed. In this case, despite some works of reasonable interest, the building is the dominant constituent and the progenitor of the strongest memories.

The ‘Objection’ exhibition at the Pavilion of Humanity, gave rare access to one of the smallest and most desirable properties on the Grand Canal. The powerful exhibited work by two women artists, Michal Cole, (Israel/UK), and Ekin Onat, (Turkey/Germany), combines meticulous making with deep and thought-provoking concepts, placing gender politics within the context of a small Venetian villa beside the Accademia Bridge. The works shown are inserted into the spaces of this villa, and are varied, from a room lined with thousands of men’s neckties sewn together to cover every surface of the room and its furnishings, a subtle yet acute attack on corporate male power, to clinically precise video works, shown on screens or inserted into everyday utensils in the kitchen, that offer a powerful critique of the objectification of women. The video shown on a screen in the bathroom portrays a woman in a boat on the lagoon, with a mop and bucket, attempting to soak up the water, while another has the same woman attempting to clean the shore line with a vacuum cleaner. These technically assured and well-presented videos make a clear and powerful exposition of the drudgery of much of the work done by women. In the bedroom two figures, casts of the artists, themselves sit on either side of the bed, as if caught in the moments after waking, held in suspension between the realm of sleep and dreams and the world outside that awaits them, a quiet and authoritative assertion of identity. The collision of the domestic and the political in the exhibition in this location is in itself unsettling, a feeling belied by the inherent calm of the small house.

Grenada: The Grenada pavilion is one among those of many smaller nations. In 2015, and again this year, it offers an exhibition containing the work of a number of artists whose approach and origins are very different. Among the group is the Grenadian artist, Milton Williams, whose two installations of the lids of canned fish containers present a colourful introduction to the exhibition, at first sight a simple arrangement of found objects, but on deeper consideration, and with reference to the artist’s statement in the catalogue, creating a profound reflection on the nature of international trade and social interaction. The work of Asher Mains, also from Grenada is shown in an installation of hanging portraits of Grenadian friends on unstretched sailcloth, which also carry the shadows of the dried sea-fans suspended behind the cloth. The work of both these artists relates to their island but widens out to contain global concerns. Contrast comes in the work of two of the other participants. Alexandre Marucci lives in Brazil, and his sculpture, ‘Truth’, from his Google series, comprises a see-saw structure with telescopes mounted on tripods at either end, each gazing at the other, with an illuminated strip on the surrounding walls, bearing the word ‘truth’ translated into 104 languages by the Google Translate programme, creating an eloquent meditation on both the inter-connectedness of our world and the nature of truth in a changing society. Rashid Al Khalifa works in Bahrain and in a very different medium, with very different outcomes. Three works from his continuing, ‘Shapes of Time’, series present intriguing variations on the highly disciplined use of the geometrical forms of the circle and the square for which this artist is well-known. His acute understanding of colour and the effect of projected light and shadow are shown to good effect in these works. It was good to see that in a new work, ‘Untitled’, he takes the strict formalism of his approach in a different direction. The work is larger with a grid of squares, each in turn made up from four smaller squares, with in-turned corners, painted in a clear yellow with the intent (in the artist’s words) ‘to illustrate the architectural aspect of my vision and the way my hybrid paintings begin with a three-dimensional concept’. The work of Jason deCaires Taylor, an English/Guyanese artist based in London, is placed at the centre of this exhibition. Through sculpture, large-scale photographs and a video the remarkable work of this artist in creating the underwater sculpture parks for which he has become celebrated offers the opportunity to assess it within the context of the other artists in this Pavilion. His clear awareness of the possibilities of contemporary art to link pure creation with the wider concerns of the world is striking, and the power of his work as shown in what is only a small selection is clearly self-evident. The blend of works by these artists, and that of the other contributors creates a compact and fascinating exhibition that fits squarely with the stated intentions of the Curator for the 2017 Venice Biennale.

A Controversy: This year the Grenada Pavilion has, additionally, found itself very much in the eye of media reports due to the work of one of its artists, Jason deCaires Taylor, who has for more than ten years been very active in developing a number of large-scale underwater museums containing life-sized figurative sculpture. These works are made in pH neutral materials that induce the growth of algae and coral, integrating them into the marine environment and aiding its conservation, while at the same time encouraging environmental awareness and a deeper appreciation of the mankind’s connection with the sea, The response of those able to visit the sites and explore them by diving, or to see the photographic and video documentation that has been shown in a number of well-supported and regarded international exhibitions, has been universally positive.

The controversy that has arisen comes from the comparison that visitors and critics have made between the work of Taylor in the Grenada Pavilion, comprising small sculpture, photographs and video, with the work of Damien Hirst that is being shown in his huge unofficial exhibition being staged in two locations to coincide with the Venice Biennale. The Hirst exhibition is titled, ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’, containing a large number of works that purport to be artefacts from the wreck of an ancient ship. In fact the exhibition and the works in it are based entirely on a fiction with all the works being constructed specifically for the exhibition. A large number of people have drawn attention, not always complimentary, to the curious coincidences and similarities in the Jason deCaires Taylor and Damien Hirst exhibitions, between the fact of Taylor’s work and the fiction of Hirst’s work.

The Commissioner from the Grenada Ministry of Culture, Dr Susan Mains, has given this statement: ‘Jason deCaires Taylor was curated for the Grenada Pavilion long before it was known that Damien Hirst would be staging an unofficial exhibition during the Biennale di Venezia. Jason’s work over the past eleven years of restoration of reef environments with life size sculptures of humans began in Grenada. This artist’s sensitive portrayals and genuine care for the life of the reefs has given rise to a movement akin to the Land movement of the 1970s. The thousands of visitors who have come to the Grenada pavilion start with looks of Hirst-filled confusion. After learning of Jason’s work through the video, sculptures, and photos, they leave remarks of genuine admiration and support for Jason. “He is the real thing.” We agree.’

Public Sculpture: Venice has a wealth of public sculpture, and the Biennale adds to this with site-specific works installed for the duration of the event. The sculpture by the late James Lee Byers, ‘The Golden Tower’, set beside the Grand Canal on the edge of the Campo San Vio, is a successful example of what such interventions can bring to a city. This 66ft/20m high gilded column with a hemispherical apex, minimal in form and emblematic of indulgent excess, recalls both the great wealth of the height of the Venetian republic and the intellectual striving of that period, with an austere form that is both a celebration and an admonishing finger. By contrast the overblown resin sculptures of Damien Hirst, set outside the sites of his huge and controversial independent
exhibitions at the Palazzo Grassi and the Dogana, seem crude and intrusive, a crass insertion into architectural perfection. One further work of temporarily installed public sculpture, more successful that Hirst’s, comes with Lorenzo Quinn’s ‘Support’, a pair of massive hands emerging from the Grand Canal and seeming to support the walls of the Ca’ Sagredo Hotel. The meaning is clear, commenting on the risk of rising sea levels due to climate change and the helplessness of society to prevent the collapse of our constructed world.

Technology: It is inevitable in that many contemporary artists use technology. This Biennale has some excellent examples of how sophisticated the available technologies have become. A good example is seen in the New Zealand exhibition, where the beautiful and technically accomplished video work, ‘Emissaries’, by Lisa Reihana evokes the colonisation of the country and the impact on the indigenous Maori culture. However, there is a real problem with the tech-based exhibitions in that most of them have works that last 15 minutes or more, are shown continuously and, in reality, are not seen in full by many visitors trying to see so many other exhibitions. Entering, for example, a dark abandoned church from the dazzling light of the street in an attempt to see the Scottish contribution was a major hazard, and when eventually finding somewhere to sit or stand it was almost impossible to pick up the story half-way through, with insufficient time to sit and see it in full. Long durational video or sound works are becoming ever more evident and puzzle or defeat the majority of casual viewers. Are they in danger of being thought of merely as artistic self-indulgence?
Conclusion: The Biennale presents a huge challenge, exhausting to see even in part. I do not, honestly, think that anyone visiting Venice for a few days, or a week, can see everything, and perhaps not enough to reach a final conclusion. The problems of tourist pollution create a tension within an historic location that is still, for the moment, a beautiful city and not yet a heritage theme park. The conflict between the city and the exhibitions is a constant factor, and finding some of the exhibitions in the more remote parts of the city presents another challenge. The dominance of major galleries and institutions is increasing with each successive Biennale, and this is perhaps both a blessing and a curse. Although it was strictly an unofficial Biennale exhibition, the sprawling Hirst exhibitions typify the dilemma. This dominance might be in a danger of overshadowing the efforts of more modest galleries and organisations, or even individual artists. Given these constraints it is difficult for anyone to give a complete report or assessment and any review can only allow a partial assessment.

A critical question comes from this difficulty, one that applies also to other large scale major biennale and similar events, and that concerns the optimum size of such events. While the matter of economics is a crucial one for the organisers of both the overall event and its individual components, there has to be a limit in the scale of the event as a whole and the accessibility of the area over which it is spread. The need for visitors to negotiate the crowded city to reach the Biennale venues could become a problem if an increasing number of buildings across the city are used as exhibition spaces. However, there is one positive side to this problem in that the Biennale offers an increasing number of exhibitions staged within historic buildings, many of which are not normally open to the general public. This trend is an important one for the city, as the rental that can be charged by the owners of such buildings is no doubt important contribution to their maintenance and repair. Being able to enter such buildings is definitely an attraction to visitors, giving them not only the opportunity to see inside such places and so appreciate better the architectural richness of the city, but also to engage with the art shown within them. The challenges that this opportunity gives to the exhibiting artists and curators is part of the allure of the Biennale. The degree to which the balance between the buildings’ interior and the art reach an equilibrium is another matter: not all relationships are comfortable or successful.

The potential future of the Biennale is a matter for debate. There needs to be some clarity over what it is intended to achieve in a world in which travel becomes ever more expensive and journeys more difficult. It is a matter of reaching a point of balance between what the artists do and hope to achieve, and how effectively it can communicate with visitors, be they art lovers, collectors or galleries, or simply the merely curious. On top of that the shifting political situation in the world as a whole and in individual countries presents a mass of contradictions in which the work of artists is needed more and more. In the end, Venice remains a seductive destination, albeit one with a glittering past and an uncertain future, and the Biennale remains a major point in the cycle of international cultural events. Future editions will perhaps show how these two factors can be reconciled to present a clear vision of the work of artists in a rapidly changing and challenging world

– © Richard Noyce, July 2017